Hang A Basket! Have A Parade!

Originally posted April 30, 2008

It’s May Day.*

No one’s leaving May Baskets at my door, I am certain, nor is anyone in the apartment complex dancing around the Maypole. A look at Wikipedia confirms my hunch that those are traditional English and Northern European activities, quite likely tied to pre-Christian fertility rites. I remember learning about them – May Baskets and Maypoles, not the fertility rites – in elementary school. It strikes me as I write that we learned very little about the celebrations of most other cultures, and that tells me how insular our culture was during those times (the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s). We celebrated Anglo-Saxon traditions and – for the most part – ignored others.

I vaguely remember making May Baskets as an art project one year early in my school days. We used little blunt-ended scissors to cut construction paper into the appropriate shapes, and then we glued those pieces together with that white paste that someone in the classroom always insisted was good to eat.

May Day is also celebrated as an international workers’ holiday, and that brings back other memories. During the years of my childhood and youth, we’d see television footage every May Day of the parade in Moscow. The Soviet Union’s workers and soldiers would march, accompanied by tanks and missiles. They’d pass through Red Square, where old men in uniforms and ill-fitting suits – the leaders of the Soviet Union – stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to review them. I remember seeing bits and pieces of the parades on television in shades of gray; once color television became the norm, the parade turned into a celebration in a sea of red. Whether the spectacle was in gray or in red, though, we were taught that it should have frightened us.

Do the believers who remain still march through Red Square? I don’t know. For that matter, does anyone dance around a Maypole anywhere? Again, I have no idea. But to mark May Day, here’s a selection of songs – mostly random; I clicked past a few from earlier years – that have in common the predominant color from those May Day parades.

A Baker’s Dozen of Red
“Red Hot Chicken” by Wet Willie from Wet Willie II, 1972

“Red Box” by Simply Red from Picture Book, 1985

“The Red Plains” by Bruce Hornsby & The Range from The Way It Is, 1986

“Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, alternate mix from The London Sessions, 1970

“Red Telephone” by Love from Forever Changes, 1967

“Red Cross Store” by Koerner, Ray & Glover from [Lots More] Blues, Rags and Hollers, 1964

“Red Shoes” by Chris Rea from Auberge, 1991

“Red House” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from Are You Experienced (U.S. version), 1967

“Red Dirt Boogie, Brother,” by Jesse Ed Davis from Ululu, 1972

“Red Flowers” by Martin & Neil from Tear Down The Walls, 1964

“Bottle of Red Wine” by Eric Clapton from Eric Clapton, 1970

“Red’s Song” by the Jayhawks from Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995

“99 Red Balloons” by Nena, Epic single 04108, 1984

A few notes:

The band Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The group had three Top 40 hits – the best, “Keep On Smilin’,” went to No. 20 in 1974 – and released a series of pretty good albums between 1971 and 1979. The best of those was likely The Wetter the Better, in 1976, but all are worth finding. My thanks to TC at Groovy Fab, whose posts reminded me. (TC also has a great blog: TC’s Old & New Music Review.)

Simply Red’s Picture Book was the group’s debut, and I’m not sure the group ever released a better album. With two Top 40 hits (“Holding Back The Years” went to No. 1, and “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” reached No. 28), the album itself reached the Top 40 with its mix of melodic ballads and grittier numbers.

“Red Telephone” comes from the quirky and beautiful Forever Changes, quite likely the pinnacle of the L.A. group Love. Led by Arthur Lee, the group released three great albums – Love, Da Capo and Forever Changes in 1966 and 1967, becoming a favorite of critics and other musicians in the rapidly changing Southern California music scene. The band soldiered on until 1974 but never regained the odd magic it had during those first years.

The late Jesse Ed Davis wasn’t much of a singer, as one listen to “Red Dirt Boogie, Brother” tells you, but he was a hell of a guitar player. The list of his credits includes session work for artists ranging from John Lee Hooker and Booker T. Jones to Buffy Ste. Marie, Brewer & Shipley, John Lennon and Tracy Nelson. And when it came time to record his own albums – his self-titled 1971 debut, 1972’s Ululu and Keep Me Comin’ in 1973 – he had a wide range of friends and associates to help out. The credits for Ululu list Dr. John, Duck Dunn, Jim Keltner, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Merry Clayton and more.

The folk duo Martin & Neil of “Red Flowers” was Vince Martin and the late Fred Neil, the latter, of course, better known as the writer of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which was a No. 6 hit for Nilsson in 1969. Neil’s own recordings are worth digging into. Tear Down The Walls was his only record with Martin, and within a year, Neil would release his first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal. That would be followed by his best work, Sessions, in 1967. Later releases were a bit haphazard but interesting in their own ways.

Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” is the English version of the international hit “99 Luftballoons,” which was recorded in German. Although German is not my favorite non-English language for music – French and Danish rate rather higher – I tend to like the original of Nena’s song more than I do the translated version. I guess it’s a tendency to seek the original and beware the copy.

*Clearly, I was a day ahead of myself. It was not May Day, it was the last day of April. As I explained in a later post. I somehow misdated one of my earlier posts. Well, things happen. Note added June 24, 2011.

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